Cheesecake in Shangri-La, Part 2

Posted on December 10, 2016

But there was one deficiency to Bhutan. A serious one: no good coffee. When a Bhutanese had a yen for a hot drink, the go to beverage is tea, black or with milk and spices, or an herbal version fortified with salt and butter (in Bhutan termed ‘suja’ though unfortunately usually rendered in English as butter tea, which does this broth like drink a disservice). Or, the greatest injustice one can pay to coffee, transforming it into the instant version. I am very flexible in my eating and drinking habits, but to begin the day, and to continue the day without decent coffee is one of the few things that tries my patience in travel. None the less, I soldier on, Bhutan with only instant coffee was still a remarkable place.

While I’m pleased Bhutan has not changed much in the years I’ve been visiting I am enormously pleased to have witnessed the arrival of several cafes, where one can get a good cup of coffee and find them all to be worthwhile hang out places. It’s not just the coffee, but the coffee culture that has been a positive development. Initially the cafes where all located in the capital, Thimphu, but now are spreading, albeit slowly elsewhere. With a Bhutanese friend I take some credit, as we opened Champaca Café in Paro just over 2 years ago. Getting good coffee to Bhutan was no enormous feat, but I think it safe to say it required more work than elsewhere. All the coffee equipment must be brought in from outside, and the beans grown in India then imported to Bhutan. Our coffee machines (and those of other cafes) cannot be serviced in Bhutan, nor can spare parts be obtained, so each visit I carry requested items in my luggage, and recently I had a request as a rat chewed through a tiny yet essential cable and the tape fix was just barely holding I brought several such cables, in the event said rat, or one of his friends ever returned.  The fixes are done via youtube instructions, which is where Sangay found the skills to actually make coffee, and then make the foam designs that make each cup so attractive to look at.

 

But coffee alone does not a café make, and we serve snacks and pastries, light meals and other beverages. And provide a wifi and books and music, the idea being we want to have a venue where regulars can come and feel comfortable, and visitors will feel welcome. Bhutan, and I’m being charitable here, is not a country renown for food. Many Bhutanese will eat rice and chilies and cheese 3 times per day, with scant amounts of meat and vegetables added to this regimen. Desserts are almost unknown. We fortunately were not trail blazers, in attempting to introduce sweets to the Bhutanese palate, but we were early in the curve. This has it pluses and minuses, but mostly pluses, as with the growing leisure and coffee culture, people are eager to embrace new foods, and not beholden to any one idea of what constitutes a good dessert.  Cookies were an early introduction at Champaca Café, chocolate chip, oatmeal, walnut raisin all sold well, though are more popular with foreign guests, Bhutanese prefer cakes and cupcakes with frosting and according to Sangay the cookies appear too plain in appearance.

I had the opportunity to spend the month of August in Bhutan and while I was in Thimphu I’d visit Paro and the café on weekends. I here admit the idea not entirely mine, as I saw cheesecake in a café in Thimphu and tasted it. And found it to be a poor version of this great dessert. As though I’d been issued a challenge, I thought ‘I can make a much better version’. Google served my purposes and brought thousands of versions to my attention. I decided the no bake cheesecake version was ideal (for the simple reason that Bhutanese ovens, all imported from India are temperamental devices that require the vigilance of a patient lover to perform well and turn out a decent product, and as I do not possess this patience with an oven,  I thought to dispense with it entirely. Besides, I’d made many no bake cheesecakes in the USA and found them to be delicious. In the USA any market can provide the ingredients for cheesecake, or just about anything else one wants to eat or cook. Bhutan has 3 supermarkets, and if one put all the goods in all three together, you’d still have just a tiny fraction of the goods available in one mediocre USA supermarket. This is one of the drawbacks of a developing isolated country, the items we take for granted in USA are simply not found in Bhutan.  OK, improvise. Only one of the markets sells cream cheese, imported from India and expensive. None of the markets sells whipping cream, but all sell a Thai imported powder than when mixed with water turns into whipped cream (with the proper taste and consistency). There are no graham crackers in the entire kingdom, so scratch the graham cracker crust. But there are butter cookies imported from India (inexpensive) and Thailand (expensive). Wanting to add flavor to the cheesecakes, I found one place with peanut butter imported from USA, at an extraordinary cost (who buys this?) and Indian made peanut butter, affordable and delicious. Chocolate chips, syrup and powder all available, again of Indian provenance affordable, Thai imports generally pricey.

 

As a vessel for the cheesecake, I scoured the country for spring board cake pans. My results came to nought. No one stocks these. Which seemed to be a problem, how to remove the cheesecake from the pan, as this was to be for sale, looks as important as taste. So it seemed we were going to have to live with cosmetically flawed cheesecake, which presented a problem, if we plan to introduce a new item to the cuisine of Bhutan, seems that a pleasing appearance, rather than ragged edges are preferable.

So we set out to make cheesecake at Champaca Café. The staff amused by the chilip, the affectionate term Bhutanese use to refer to foreigners who took over the kitchen. The blender crushed various cookies, and then we mixed with butter to form a base.  Patted them into the bottom and of the pan and up the edges (later versions had only the bottom crust, the better to see the cheesecake). Then the cream cheese mixed with sugar, chocolate chips and peanut butter (the flavor of our maiden cheesecake). The texture and flavor of this creamy concoction was, with a little tweaking close to cheesecake heaven, I was pleased with myself, and had the staff all taste this. Bhutanese have not been traditionally big fans of dessert or sweets, but all the staff had smiles on their faces as they sampled my confection. The next thing to do was pour it into the pan, and then refrigerate it until solid.

It looked pretty. The moment of truth: a knife, spatula and spoon was required to remove a slice from the pan, and it was neither a pretty nor successful operation, a mangled mess. The second slice slightly better, but it was not until slice number four was removed that we had a relatively cosmetically perfect example of a slice of cheesecake. The verdict: we nailed the taste with slice number one and pretty much nailed the cheesecake beauty pageant with slice number four. And by the next day we had sold the entire cake. At high cost, a few Bhutanese ponied up money to taste this new and pricey cake, and several foreigners who knew a good cheesecake took the rest of the slices.

 

The verdict: cheesecake in Shangri-La now a reality.

Postscript: the next weeks we trialed several varieties of cheesecake, coconut, chocolate, coconut chocolate, lemon rum raisin, ginger and cardamon. We made our own cheese by hanging yogurt in cheesecloth overnight rather than use the pricey imported Indian cream cheese. I had to leave Bhutan for short visit to the USA and returned with a small array of spring board cake pans (we probably have the largest collection of these in Bhutan now). And the following month when I again returned, Champaca Café had 3 cheesecakes on offer daily, each of them cosmetically and palate perfect. The students had obviously overtaken the teacher and the cheesecakes were selling like proverbial hotcakes.